Five Questions and Answers About Snow

By Zach Hudson, Intern Naturalist

Freshly groomed ski trails

Freshly groomed ski trails

Winter is my favorite season of all, and my favorite part of winter is the snow. Snow can be quite interesting for a naturalist or anyone interested in nature. There are many things about snow that can help us understand how nature works in the winter, including when, where and how much of the white stuff we can expect to get. So without further ado here are five facts about the stuff that makes winter so great!

1. When does it snow first in Faribault?
River Bend founder Orwin Rustad kept a detailed journal for over 50 years recording the timing of a variety of events in the natural world, including the first measurable snowfall of each winter. According to his journals the earliest snow has fallen here was on September 30 all the way back in 1961. On average though, we can expect to see our first snowfall sometime in early November. Once that first snow falls Faribault receives about 40 inches of snow total over the course of the winter concentrated in the months of December and January.

2. What are some of the historic snowstorms that have hit Faribault?
In addition to recording the start of the snowy season each year Orwin Rustad also kept records of major storm events that occurred in Faribault and other locations in Minnesota. Many people remember the 1991 Halloween Blizzard but, this is far from the only significant blizzard to strike Faribault. Bishop Whipple has accounts from the 1800’s of riding his horse through a horrific snow to reach some of the mission outposts he visited. In addition Faribault saw a single storm that dropped 20 inches of snow in 1982, one of three large storms that year in Rustad’s journal.

3. Where are the snowiest places in the U.S.?
While Faribault and Minnesota in general do receive their fair share of snow we are far from the snowiest places in the USA. Valdez, Alaska averages over 300 inches per year which is about the equivalent of the height of a football goalpost. Excluding Alaska, cities near mountains or large bodies of water have a tendency to get pounded with the white stuff. My hometown of Lander, Wyoming gets over 100 inches of snow every year and Ironwood in Michigan’s upper peninsula receives an average of 180 inches of lake effect snow.

Hoar Frost

Hoar frost on tree branches in 2010.

4. How do snow crystals get their amazing structures?
The structure of individual snow crystals is quite fascinating, and arises from various properties of water. All snow crystals have six-fold symmetry or something close to it. The six-fold symmetry arises from the molecular nature of ice as it freezes. The uniqueness of snowflakes has to do with the varied paths they take to earth from the time they begin to form up in the clouds. Every snowflake starts its life as a simple hexagon and grows branches of various shapes as its external conditions change. No two snowflakes experience the exact same conditions as they fall resulting in unique structures for each flake. You can find more information including some amazing images at this website run by physicists at Cal Tech.

5. What is a true blizzard?
We often think of any major snowfall event as a blizzard, but is that really correct? The answer is no, a true blizzard combines heavy snowfall with strong winds. According to the National Weather Service for a storm to receive blizzard designation it must meet the following criteria: for a time period of at least 3 hours there must be wind to 35 mph or greater and considerable falling or blowing snow, such that visibility is reduced to a 1/4 mile or less. According to these requirements true blizzards are rare; however blizzard-like conditions can be relatively common for shorter time periods.

Zach Hudson is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

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